31 December, 2017

Eight Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Birthday season, perennial bringer of many excellent literary gifts from loved ones and strangers alike, did not leave me without reading material worth crowing about. Sure, I finally got around to the Sherman Alexie collection Blasphemy (shipped to me six months prior, by Tom at Prospero's Books in Kansas City) and Anthony Doerr's magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. But more meaningful were the books sent by the people who care what literature enriches my days.

To wit: ever so thoughtful and generous, Emily C. ordered a trifecta of marvels into my hands. First was Joe Wenderoth's insanely clever (or, perhaps, merely insane) Letters to Wendy's, which includes such gems as
SEPTEMBER 18, 1996
I don't think Wendy's coffee has such a good taste. This is not to say I don't like it. I like it very much. Its poor taste keeps my intentions clear; I drink coffee for the enthusiasm-prod, not the taste. The taste, when it is too pleasant, can distract one from what matters most — the deep writhing jolt. Of course some taste is necessary so the jolt seems, at bottom, inadvertent.
and the poignant
APRIL 4, 1997
One is accused of sensationalism when one focuses on pain. Rightly so when one is using pain to re-create a pre-existing sensation. But in truth pain has never been before, exactly, and its shadow has always concealed its coming fullness. To know this is to haul out the most fundamental question a speaking animal can attempt. The question is not: what is creating pain? The question is: what is pain creating?
Then were the stimulating quasi-realities depicted in the short-story collections Tenth of December, by George Saunders, and Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Theodore Goossen). Both delivered just the type of eccentric, plausibility-agnostic tales I often need in my life.

Following those, I descended into playwright Jeff Jackson's dark, fraught novel Mira Corpora, a gift from the good Lady V., who'd never, ironically, read such a harrowing, nihilistic misadventure of wayward youth herself. Then I moved to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter — a gift from my mother, who read Mann in the original German long ago enough as to hardly remember his luxurious descriptive power or frank homoeroticism. Discussion followed.

Lana C.'s surprise to me was an Amazon package containing three books from my wish list.  Greedily, I propelled myself myself through Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins, before year's end. Robbins was one of my father's favorites — and now I finally know why. Fun, philosophical stuff.

2018 finds me with several more promising books on hand, and a few on the list to borrow. I can hardly wait.

15 December, 2017

What's in a (Prisoner's) Name?

You think of the nicknames, adopted or bestowed, that prisoners go by, and what springs to mind are probably tough-as-nails monikers like Hammer, Spider, and Snake. But there are many schlubs in the jug with names that wouldn't strike even mild concern in the hearts of those who hear them spoken. In my years among the criminal class, I've encountered a host of absurd and awkward aliases of which the following are highlights.

  • Bamm-Bamm
  • Dookie
  • Don-Don
  • Oreo
  • Titi
  • Cornbread
  • Bullethead
  • Stutterbug
  • Rainbow
  • Short Dog
  • Bad News
  • Droopy
  • Wrong Turn
  • Teddy Bear
  • Crock Pot
  • Teardrop
  • Peanut Butter
  • Boo
  • Big Bird
  • Cool Breeze
  • Can't Get Right
  • Smurf
  • Wood Chip
  • Shampoo
  • Boot Heel
  • T-Baby
  • Vaygo (which was somehow short for "Las Vegas")
  • Doorknob

01 December, 2017

Giving It All Up for a Desk Job

The perks of my job in the staff dining hall, where I served dinner to Crossroads' guards and late-working caseworkers, were by all accounts enviable. I got to eat what and however much I wanted (a mixed blessing, come bread pudding nights). My shift was a meager four hours a day, three or four days a week. It paid nearly twice as much as positions twice as coveted. It faced one with no coworkers to have to deal with. Only a crazy person would give it up.

Call me crazy; I took a prison library job on 6 November.

Weirdly, a lot of people think they remember me working in the library before, years ago. I didn't. Even the librarian, when I submitted the application, asked, ''Didn't we offer you a job here once before?" They didn't. Evidently, mine is just one of those faces — library face.

Certain others are surprised that I'd take any position in the library, considering previous complaints about the raging harpies who ran the place. I point out that they're no longer employed here and that the current librarian has yet to turn me to stone with her gaze; I think this will turn out fine. Besides, it's a job — I'm not trying to make friends and influence people.

My position is at the reference/periodicals desk. I hand out World Book volumes, prescription medication guides, and magazines (GQ, Muscle Car, National Geographic Traveler) and newspapers. It's a good gig. My friend Zach and I see each other every afternoon, when our shifts overlap. In between tasks we banter, debate, and collude on strategies legal and writerly.

To judge by the last few weeks, it's work I enjoy. And what philomath wouldn't like having hundreds of hefty, data-rich tomes at his back? On my first day, looking things up for others, I learned all about Aruba, that rottenstone is a silica-rich rock used in metal-polishing, and that Morrissey appears in a hilarious new ad for PETA. It's not Internet access, but it's close enough, for now.

Continuing to look on the bright side of this lifestyle tweak, I was happy to see that, a week after leaving Staff Dining, I lost three and a half pounds. Maybe now I can finally earn those eight-pack abs I've been straining my way toward.